The Historical Classroom: Disciplinary History for the Twenty-First Century

Collaborative Group

Dr. Rachel Sagner Buurma, Professor Laura Heffernan


English Literature


Official disciplinary histories of English literature describe the discipline’s past as divided between eras in which literature was valued and eras in which knowledge was produced about its historical contexts. This divide—between professing value and producing knowledge—lives on in descriptions of the disconnect between undergraduate teaching and scholarly research. This collaborative project provides a new history of how English professors created value through, rather than despite, their research practices; this history has remained untold because its primary scene is that most devalued of disciplinary spaces: the classroom. Examining the major archives and more minor traces of mid-century literary critics like Cleanth Brooks, Edmund Wilson, W.K. Wimsatt, Monroe Beardsley, J.L. Lowes, Arthur Ransom, L.C. Knights, Sterling Brown, and J. Saunders Redding, the collaborators follow these critics’ research as it traverses the spaces of their classrooms, libraries, and offices by examining the syllabi, lecture notes, and records of student work they left behind. These neglected materials newly illuminate the alternate ways that English professors of the past created value in the classroom—ways that are not necessarily tied to literary canons, aesthetic form, or trans-historical ideas of the human. As a Victorianist and a Modernist, the collaborators’ expertise is chronologically contiguous but conceptually distant; they meet at the time during which the academic study of English literature was invented, giving the project both a deep grounding and a wide view. Their previous collaboration resulted in an article in New Literary History (43.1); their continued research will produce a jointly-authored book. Award period: September 1, 2012 - August 31, 2014